By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Florida – Tom Robson is looking to move onto the next chapter of his career.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery – to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow – in July three years ago, the road to recovery hasn’t been as easy or as smooth as the 23-year-old right-hander had hoped.
The Toronto Blue Jays farmhand was pitching less than a year after the procedure, getting 11 starts before the end of the 2015 season between the rookie-class Bluefield Blue Jays, short-season Vancouver Canadians and class-A Lansing Lugnuts. He moved up to the class-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays roster to start last season, before suffering a setback at the end of April and missing all of May.
Returning to the mound in June with the Lugnuts, Robson had mixed results. After three starts with Lansing, the righty moved into the bullpen to finish off the rest of an up-and-down year. Outside of his missed month, the native of Ladner, B.C. posted a 7.26 ERA last season over 27 appearances and 70 2/3 innings, walking 51 and striking out 52.
“I’ve never experienced anything in my life that was as bad as last year,” Robson said. “It was pretty tough. It was just my pitching. I had never pitched that poorly. But you’ve got to learn from it and take what you can from it, which is what I’m trying to do now.
“For me, it was a lack of execution, not throwing strikes. When you get into that type of way, especially as a pitcher, you’re just kind of throwing beach balls up there. They hit you all over the park. Then you get behind in counts and they know a heater’s coming, and you can’t execute a pitch down in the zone. It’s pretty hard, but I’m trying to work through it.”
Currently in Dunedin once again, with just seven outings and 10 2/3 innings under his belt, Robson is doing his best to move past what he went through last year and continue the progress he’s made on the field.
“I’m just trying to stay positive,” he said. “I’m trying to do my thing and forget about what happened last year, turn the page. It’s a new year, new me, so we’ll see how it goes. Last year, I just struggled mentally with a lot of stuff, there was not a lot of confidence and a lot of self-doubt, so I learned what that can do to you as a baseball player.
“This year, I’m trying to stay positive at all times, whether things are good or bad, and so far it’s been so-so. I had a really good spring training, and my last couple of outings have been pretty poor, but we’re trying to get through that.”
For Robson and for his squad in Dunedin, the most important thing is just getting back to who he once was. Last year, the right-handed hurler became a pitcher he didn’t recognize, thinking through every pitch and getting ahead of himself out on the hill, and losing the strike zone in a way he had never experienced.
“I don’t know what happened,” the former Canadian Junior National Team member said. “After surgery, I just haven’t been the same…I was never a thinker on the mound, so it’s very new to me. It takes time but I think I’m heading in the right direction. Before, I would be not thinking about anything, just throwing the ball, which is what you’re supposed to do. But when you start thinking a lot, you kind of screw yourself up and bad things happen. So I’m trying to stay away from that.”
After the two briefly met in Vancouver while Robson rehabbed two years ago, John Schneider became the young pitcher’s manager in Lansing last year, and is with him again this season in Dunedin. The skipper is excited about the potential Robson brings to his team, and is looking forward to when he returns to form.
“Whenever you’re coming back from surgery it takes a little bit of time for you to trust yourself,” Schneider said. “We work with it almost on a daily basis. I’ve told Robbie since Day 1 that he’s got one of the best, if not the best arm in the system. Sometimes he kind of laughs and I say, ‘Hey, I’m not kidding.’ It’s 95 and it’s a good slider and a good curveball.
“What’s helped is his teammates now, who faced him in spring training tell him, ‘You’re the most uncomfortable at-bat I’ve had all spring because of how you throw the ball.’ So when he harnesses it all, physically and mentally, the sky’s the limit for him. I know he’s had some rough outings, but he’s had some dominant outings even so far this year. Once he gets rolling and he has a little bit of success, it’s going to be all good for Tommy.”
Last season, Robson reached out to the mental skills specialists within Toronto’s newly-implemented high-performance team, which he believed helped him along the way. This year, he has been working with Ben Freakley, a member of that team who has been splitting his time between Dunedin and New Hampshire, and helps Robson keep things in perspective.
“He’s really good,” the reliever said of Freakley. “I spend some time with him when he’s in town. He’s an awesome guy. He’s a pretty strong dude, and he used to work with military members…Some of the things that I’m going through with doubt and confidence, you can experience those things in all parts of life, not just in baseball, but all sports and whatnot. There are a lot of comparisons and that helps me out a lot.”
What has helped the most so far was Robson’s break from everything during the off-season, when he went home to the west coast after the Fall Instructional League to housesit on a beach in Vancouver for two months. He got some much-needed time away from baseball, also visiting Whistler a couple of times. He worked out with Jake Elder, the same man he works out with every winter, who used to be a strength coach with the Blue Jays and now earns his living at Douglas College.
“Spring was good,” Robson said. “My first few outings here were good. I definitely take some positives from those. The time away from baseball definitely helped me, just to clear my mind.”
Robson also came into this season with an added weapon in his repertoire, bringing out a slider that he had been toying with previously and honed during the winter months.
“It’s been really good, so I’m sticking to that,” he said. “Fastball-slider, especially out of the bullpen, that’s been going really well. I started throwing it in the off-season. I had thrown it in the past, experimenting with stuff, and I knew I could throw one, so I added it to my repertoire and practiced it in the off-season. It’s my go-to pitch after my fastball now.”
Still working out the kinks of his recovery from surgery, Robson is well on his way to fulfilling his potential. After experiencing something similar after his own Tommy John procedure, Robson’s teammate and fellow Canuck hurler Jordan Romano believes it’s only a matter of time before everything clicks for his friend.
“I was doubting myself because it was like I wasn’t sure if I was going to be the same again,” Romano said. “So coming back initially I was in my head. My throwing program, the training staff said it was probably the worst one they’ve ever seen. You go through little bumps here and there, but for me I was getting in my head more than anything mechanically.
“So I really do understand how that doubt and lack of self confidence can come in, and as time progresses it gets less and less. You basically naturally get over it, and the more I threw, the more I realized hey, I can actually do this.”
As the Dunedin Blue Jays season unfolds, the hope is that the same is true for Robson.